Saturday, April 07, 2012

"What seems to be lacking is competent supervision " Cllr Brian Stewart

Brian Stewart speaking on the subject of the management of local council services on Wednesday night in the Community Centre:

"There’s a bit of a pattern here, not just in this community council but also in the other discussions in the other communtiy councils about the way in which services are being delivered in and around Nairn. From mowers flattening the gravestones in the cemetery to the issue that Mike Henderson pursued about council workers working at weekends to clear up the beach, to problems of contractors who dumped all over the flower beds which people had taken a lot of time and voluntary effort to plant opposite the West End garage and that area. And the common thread moving through this is that most of this seems to have emerged since the reorganisation and/or contracting out of council services. Either TEC services type work whether it is maintenance or grass cutting or cemeteries or whatever is managed remotely by some official in Kinguisse or some official in Inverness or it’s left to private contractors or let out to private contractors. The point, the general theme about this, is that what seems to be lacking is competent supervision, and the irony is that the more stuff is let out at arm’s length, at a distance, if money is tight and the work is contracted out supervision becomes more not less important. The pattern seems to be that the services are being reduced and the level of supervision and local scrutiny of how it is being performed is diminishing and that’s largely because the people doing the supervising are not here."

There was some discussion then of the centralised nature of services and the paradox created by the contracting out system: being that although front line staff had been paid off while the council has retained the supervisory and management staff in Glenurquhart Road. Ritichie Cunningham, Indepependent candidate in the forthcoming election and rector of Inverness High School gave an example that he himself had come across in his professional life:
"Well often they don't actually have the budgets, the budgets are held by other services. For example, as a head teacher I have a budget for clearing the car parks. I can't use TEC services anymore. I have to use one of their approved contractors."


Anonymous said...

Totally agree with Brian Stewart, Highland Council have put almost everything out to tender, supposedly the "best value" tender wins the contract. In reality the cheapest tender wins and "Best Practice" goes out of the window. All in the name of achieving savings. Perhaps our local Councillors will be able to tell us how much has been saved by this exercise and where the savings have gone.

Anonymous said...

Compulsory Competitive Tendering (CCT) was introduced in the UK by the Conservative Government throughout the 1980s. CCT was trumpeted as a means of making substantial savings in public expenditure. Research carried out in 1995 by Escott and Whitfield involved 39 UK local authorities (including 3 Regional Councils and 3 District Councils in Scotland). The authors of the report concluded that the overall costs of Compulsory Competitive Tendering are greater than the savings. It seems even with the benefit of research back in 1995 poor decisions are still being made about CCT and outsourcing of direct services. What are the views of our prospective Councillors on local services? Any manifesto declarations on this important policy matter?

Graisg said...

Is that report or a summary available online Anon?
As for the views of our prospective Councillors - why not e-mail or ask them on Facebook Anon?
Laurie and Graham of course are members of an administration that has voted in favour of such measures that have impacted locally.

Nairnac said...

Anyone with any experience of 'contracting out' knows that this is precisely what happens. The contractor is out to do the minimum work for the maximum cost to the client. They spend more time scrutinising the contract to see how they can milk the client for everything than they do focussing on the quality of the work. The contractors employees are paid less with worse t's & c's than the previous guys and the contractor has zero interest in doing a 'good' job, the only interest is in the profit margin. I genuinely believe that most highland councillors have no experience or grasp of this environment. No idea of quite how rapacious the directors of the contracting companies can be. This is why the public sector always gets taken to the cleaners by these people. Most of the elected officials in charge have absolutely no grasp of it ! It's not that most of them are not nice enough people or well enough meaning, but they are easy prey for these contracting companies.

Anonymous said...

A question for Nairnac? What about the role of the council officials in all this? What part do they play? Surely it is their job to 'advise' the councillors? After all the officials are the 'professionals' who are paid for their experience and knowledge?

Nairnac said...

Council officials can only advise within the experience they have, which, if they have been council managers managing councils own employees was probably more focussed on getting the job done rather than being a contract manager trying to rein in rapacious contractors. I don't know, but I can't imagine many of the council management would have been in favour of 'outsourcing' the jobs of many of their work colleagues.
Anyway, the operative word is 'advise' - these decisions are ultimately taken by the elected politicians and my suspicion is that they get taken to the cleaners by the contractors. This is a national as well as local problem as proved by the recent A4e scandal amongst many others. It's only my own take on how we end up in the position as succinctly described by 'Anonymous' above.So, in short, I'd bring them all back in house to the council.

Sir Viss said...

Nairnac is right: public sector officials, however well-meaning, are usually no match for ruthless commercial firms driven by the overwhelming need to make profits.

But it's unrealistic to hope to turn the clock back. Unless there is flagrant abuse or utter ineffectiveness, contracting-out is going to be a fact of life. This is not just because of the marginal saving in current Council budgets (ie running costs). The real driver is the massive sums in overheads (pension contributions, National Insurance etc) which the Council would have to pay for in-house employees doing the work, and can save by contracting out.

So rather than hoping in vain for a return to all services being delivered in-house, the need now is for the Council staff to be a lot more shrewd in negotiating with contractors, and above all for Council to monitor - very closely - how the contractors perform. That means having very tight LOCAL oversight of what these firms do.... which is I think what Brian Stewart was suggesting.

All of which is a strong argument for going back to locally-based Council management of services, and reversing the recent trend of centralisation of staff into Inverness. If the contracts for Nairn were supervised by officials based in Nairn (and likewise elsewhere around the region), contractors would have less opportunity to skimp on the work.

Graisg said...

We can't turn back the clock you say Sir Viss. Maybe not but I would have stepped forward into the future in a different way.
Notice how in the first year of the contract the appearance of "No man's land" areas which didn't get cut by the contractors. These areas weren't in the contract, whoever drew up the contract didn't know about them.
The previous front-line staff that did the job knew about them however and cut them every year.
They should have been allowed to get on with the job with an enhanced rate of pay and all the top level supervision paid off. Those guys just went out and did it and could have continued to do so all by themselves. Que sera, sera...

Dat Sun said...

A (true) fairy story.

Once upon a time British Leyland made cars. They were often badly assembled and unreliable, because the workers didn't care much about doing a good job. So they appointed inspectors to check the cars at the end of the production line. So the workers cared even less - since they reckoned the inspectors would pick up any problems and get them sorted. The inspectors couldn't spot every fault. So the cars became even more unreliable. So BL put in quality controllers to pick up the faults the inspectors missed. This slowed production because cars were being sent back. They were still unreliable. End result: people ceased buying the cars, BL went bust.

Then along came Nissan. Aha, they said, we need to produce well-built reliable cars if we are going to crack the market and succeed. So they told their line-workers that THEY were responsible directly for doing the job right first time, every time, and they would get paid accordingly. Result: fewer inspectors, fewer controllers, fewer cars sent back for rectification, more reliable cars, successful business.

Graisg, you are right. Get the front-line staff who know the job, to do the job right, and get rid of all the superfluous layers of management "supervising" them.

Well, it was a fairy story - but perhaps we can dream?